Wednesday, 16 December 2015 10:54

Americans at Work Series: A Manager of Plants

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Americans at Work Series: A Manager of Plants

Bobby Cole

The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon and the nonsense arising from it has made it apparent that too many of us are ignorant of our fellows' working lives. So in the series, "Americans at Work," workers explain, in their own words, their jobs, their motivations, and their satisfactions.

An odd title, but an accurate one - I manage the growing and shipping of thousands of plants to New York customers of Bonnie Plant Farm in Alabama. I started out working for another plant farm down there, and when that was bought out by Bonnie seventeen years ago, I went along. The story of the Bonnie Farm is inspiring, a real example of self-reliance flourishing in the free enterprise system. In 1919, newlyweds Livingston and Bonnie Paulk, farming in Alabama, were looking around for a crop that would bring in some off-season income, and they tried raising cabbage plants for local sale. It was a great success and they followed it up by planting more seed the next year. Gradually they added different plants - onions, strawberries, potatoes. Until the 1970s, almost all the plants the company sold were field-grown, but by then there was growing demand for potted plants grown in greenhouses, so the company began building greenhouses. By the 1980s, Bonnie was delivering plants to thirteen southern states. Then mass-market retailers, what are called big box stores, opened garden centers, and Bonnie rose to the new demand by expanding into more states. Today the company has over 70 growing stations in 40 states and two Canadian provinces.

The New York station near Utica, the one I manage, has 48 large greenhouses serving all of New York as far south as Yonkers. The company's largest account in the whole country is mine, on Long Island. Understand that we don't do the selling; there's a crew of salesmen for that. How does it work? How do I manage plants? In February I come north and open the greenhouses and begin gathering the staff, 40 or 50 men. We have eleven trucks for delivery with two men to a truck, and about the same number working in the greenhouses. We know what we're contracted to deliver and when: so many thousands of plants due at such a store at such a time, and so many due elsewhere the next day, and so on.

We start squash, melons, cucumbers from seed ourselves, but all the rest of the herbs and vegetables (we don't grow many flowers) are started in plant cells in Alabama and trucked to us here, where we transplant them to their final containers: four-inch peat pots for tomatoes and some herbs, three-inch for melons, squash, and cucumbers, plant cells for cole crops like cabbages and broccoli and Brussels sprouts. We don't just grow a few varieties, either. We carry, for instance, 53 varieties of tomatoes, some of which we've developed ourselves, and we raise varieties suitable for every climate we cover.

Understand that we don't have a product sitting on a shelf ready to be shipped out: we have to grow that product and grow it well, and have it in tip-top shape when it leaves here for the customer. The plants can't be approximately right - they have to be as perfect as can be. These are plants, subject to all the ills that can happen to living things just starting their growth cycle. And believe me, greenhouses are great places for incubating diseases and insects, with all that warmth and moisture. So we spray all the greenhouses three times a week, and there's a wizard of a plant pathologist up in Michigan we can call on to advise us when we're stumped by a problem.

All plants are watered by hand every day, and there's fertilizer in the water, 8-4-4, which means eight parts nitrogen, four parts phosphate, and four parts potassium. In the place where I used to work, they tried automatic watering, but they couldn't count on the coverage; some plants would always be missed. That's what I mean when I say the work is careful and conscientious. I walk through every greenhouse three times a day, and I'm not just taking a break from desk work- I'm inspecting the plants, checking their growth, feeling the moisture in the soil, checking the temperature. I worked for an old farmer when I was a boy, and he had a saying: the best fertilizer is the grower's shadow.

Sometimes people ask if our plants are grown "organically." I don't want to get into a fight about that, so I'll just say that the company tried it as an experiment, but it was too chancy. There simply are no "organic" sprays effective enough for greenhouse work.

Three years ago there was an epidemic of late blight in potatoes and tomatoes, and a lot of people blamed us. It was the old story: the big bad box stores in cahoots with the big bad plant nursery to poison plants. We here in Utica had to throw out two or three million dollars worth of plants last year. Actually it started on an "organic" farm on Long Island.

By July our work is done. We clean out the greenhouses, get them ready for next year, and I head home for Alabama and lots of hunting and fishing. I don't have to worry about plants again til the turn of the year. *

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